Feminartsy: the power of creative women in Canberra

Pictured: speaking with legends Cait Elizabeth, Ruth O’Brien and Lucy Hutchens! Photos by Siobhan Clair

I wrote this piece recently for a Feminartsy event on the power of creative women in Canberra:

I do poetry, but I also work as an academic/advocate on the NDIS.

I do both part time, and these days frankly work takes up more of my time than my creative pursuits. However, I keep it going despite this.

So why split myself?

I think that the notion of power, and the power of creativity is key to the reason that I split myself between these main pursuits.

Power is shifty. Power is such that you can hold or wield it in some settings and it’s completely useless in others. It’s very context dependent.

For me, the creative space is my chance to be myself without the pressures that capitalism places on us to exchange our labour for money. It’s a chance to explore my own mind, be my own boss, and show others who I am.

But when I ask myself what it means to do something worthwhile with my time, I can’t fully say that it is though creative work. They are both powerful in some spaces, and in others they are completely useless.

So, when we’re meeting with the Department of Social Service and the NDIA, I’m not reading them a poem. Ok, that’s really obvious. Art has little power here. Instead I’m drawing on our research, combining my thoughts with my supervisor Gemma Carey, and trying to put forward a case for the constant consideration of equity in the way that disability support is done at the moment. It’s a really important issue that I couldn’t walk away from.

Similarly, when I’m writing poetry or on a stage performing, I’m not giving a spiel about market theory and inequity in the NDIS. It’s not likely to remind people of a life worth living, which is what I would hope from art.

The power of creative women in Canberra is much the same, in some spaces creative women have power, the power to shift people, to connect emotionally, to challenge ideas creatively, perhaps to give people confidence and offer affirmation to people who don’t always get affirmed. People who have to live with racism, homophobia, misogyny, ableism and so on.

But in other settings that power really won’t shift much. But that’s ok, that is the nature of power, it’s very hard to be powerful in lots of different contexts.

When I reflect on my time as a creative person, I think of the community that I found myself in. The power of a creative life doesn’t have to be realised on stage, or in a creative document (recording, poem, song, CD, painting), it can also be in the form of community.

A few years ago I would meet with some female poets and musicians to share our poems and try to make music that fits them. But it wasn’t just that, we explicitly made the space a space that could support vulnerability and openness.

I give a lot of credit to Emily Fishpool for making that space. By setting up the space as a listening space, and a support space, and drawing on our existing friendships, we were able to share our poems but also our struggles with anxiety and depression, with bad sexual experiences and abuses, with race and whiteness, with alcoholism and domestic violence. The group became a home for sharing vulnerability, for fun, for joy and for support.

We only performed live once at the food co-op, but that hardly matters to me. For me, there was power in being part of a community.

There wasn’t a lot of power in our actions in the grand scheme of civilisation, we didn’t shift any agendas about the NDIS, and frankly art rarely does shift anything in the traditional halls of power, but we did make shifts in our own journeys to have better mental health and richer lives.

I also want to give a shout out to Jacqui Mallins and the Homespun Poets who run Mother Tongue, a night of multilingual poetry where poets can perform in any language they chose. Such a space extends the boundaries of inclusivity in creative communities, meaning that whatever is powerful about being a creative person in Canberra is extended again.

Finally, I think it’s ridiculous to talk about power without talking about privilege, and the way that privilege intersects in each individual.

I’m white, CIS, middle class, employed, university educated, abled, and really the list goes on. But also, some things have not been my privilege, namely that I grew up with domestic violence, and my Mum is the major survivor of that, and this has left an imprint on me in terms of persistent anxiety and insomnia. So, this is just one example of the way that privilege and burdens can intersect in one individual, it is rarely clear cut. But this is the context from which I create.
There is a lot of privilege in being part of a community of creative women in Canberra. You can get together and be mad fucking witches, go on feminist rants, dance to glittorus. I feel the same with the non-women in my creative community, the non-binary, non-gender identifying, trans and men and others who I have the privilege to know. I think there is power in a community that has a nuanced understanding of privilege and oppression and the ways that these intersect even within individuals.

The creative world remains contested, opportunities are still unequal, but it has the potential to be a space for people to express their individuality, to explore their own privileges and their burdens – I think that the power of creativity is to open a space where an individual’s background and thoughts and emotions and interpretations really do matter.

We don’t have to put them aside and pretend that they don’t’ exist as we might have to in the workplace.

Creativity is not a condition of a good existence, but for those who want the opportunity to engage in creative work, the space should be made, even if it’s just a collection of women in a loungeroom sharing their poems.

What sort of writer am I anyway?

I tend to think of this blog as a place for my artistic work – poetry, performances – but in the last few years my academic work has been taking a lot of my time.

Maybe I’ll start to think of the blog as a blend of both?

Maybe I’m not a poet with a day job in academia, or an academic who fits poetry into her spare time, but a writer, who writes across many formats.

If I take that perspective, since I last updated this blog I’ve done a heap of published writing and conferences:

Unfortunately a lot of my academic work isn’t publicly available because academia continues to be damagingly exclusive, locked behind pay walls, and increasingly run for profit. I’m sorry for that, it sucks. For now, non-formatted versions of all my work are available on my acdaemia.edu page.

It’s helpful for me to think of my academic work as part of my identity as a writer, but I’m also feeling the impulse to bring more focus and learning to my poetry work. I’m considering starting a Masters in Creative Writing at the Uni of Canberra, I’ve started talking to Shane Strange and Jen Crawford about it, so I’ll wait and see where those conversations lead me.

Photos by Andrew Sikorski and New River Press


Growing up with four Mums

The lovely folk at Feminartsy have just published an interview I did with my partner, Nikki Mikhailovich, about growing up as a Rainbow Baby.

“For me I think that growing up with same sex parents is just another kind of normal. Because I think there are many different kinds of upbringings that occur for people in Australia and the world that are different but normal for those people. People come from different backgrounds, cultures, subcultures, ethnicities or religious backgrounds that all have unique aspects to their upbringing. But in the end, they all produce people who are a part of our society.

The hard part about my childhood wasn’t having a different family structure, the difficulties come from people on the outside who have prejudices – that’s what I’d like to see change.”

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TippingPoint Spring Lab

it was you, so I knew it would be good

Earlier this month I was invited by the lovely folks at TippingPoint to their spring lab. We spent four days doing workshops and having conversations about climate change and art. We cried and hummed a lot and snuck in chocolate.

I was fascinated to meet Asha Bee Abraham, who is another Human Ecologist/participatory artist. I really like that Asha puts Human Ecology at the front of her arts practice, as I don’t really talk much about Human Ecology on this blog or elsewhere in the arts. It’s good to know that she is carrying the fire, and carrying it well.

The lab got me thinking about making creative work again. Since finishing the last season of Eucapocalypts Now in March I’ve taken a step back and let my full time work at ANU take my focus. That was pretty necessary, as I was in the initial stages of an intense participatory modelling process and it required a lot of thought. But that project is pretty steady now.

I was reminded again that climate change is a head fuck. My favourite workshop was one on oral histories presented by Tom Doig. In it I got to have a beautiful conversation with Angharad about our childhood memories of the weather, and our moments of climate change head fucks.

My question of the moment is; how do we go forward making artistic works related to climate change when any one of us could kill ourselves today and the state of the world in 100 years wouldn’t be changed in the slightest? I think that the sustainability discourse is often overly optimistic about our agency and capacity to influence change – we often end up envisaging ‘sustainable’ civilisations that actually require a level of organisation, control and deliberative change that is completely unprecedented in human history. That’s my head fuck right now.

Dangerous Territory

Julien Hobba wrote a piece on ‘Dangerous Territory’, the section of the You Are Here festival that showed Eucapocalyts Now. In this section of the review he talks about EN:


Eucapocalypts Now by Ellie Malbon and Aaron Kirby– Westside, 2pm.

One of the Dangerous Territory curators, Morgan Little, is literally waving the You Are Here flag, leading us to a small stand of eucalypts on the outside perimeter of the Westside precinct. There’s unreconstructed shipping containers on one side, Lake Burley Griffin off on the other, and car parks all around. Ellie Malbon and Aaron Kirby, writers and performers, are about to perform to about 20 of us, again on milk crates. They explain: there will be a performance portion and a conversation portion of this show and a series of objects with provocations (in the form of questions) will move through the audience throughout. I already have the first object in my hands; it’s a computer mouse and it asks me what I would do if I couldn’t ‘click on’. I feel immediately grounded in the performance; they have me.

The performance portion is a series of poetic vignettes with minimal, mimetic movement envisaging life as the world goes through environmental apocalypse. A point is made: the change has already begun. The poetry is evocative and dexterously treads that fine line between the curious appeal of unrelated images and the slow accumulation of a whole world. In the new world, in Canberra, there will be bushfires with flames 40 metres high in the air. The poetry brings to life the poignancy and the immediacy of the environment  – the performance site. I can see the wall of flame rising over the crest of the hills behind what is now the Aboretum (God bless it); I can imagine the small post-apocalyptic communities being described, eking out their existence by the banks of what was the Murrumbidgee, and the remnants of life among the decimated buildings and landscaped environment around me.

During the conversation portion after the recitation ends, I realise we are going to have the same conversation that was happening among the people living in the fictional post-apocalyptic world about how we want to live. This makes sense, because, after all, the change has already started. We talk about the values and assumptions that shape our existence; we talk about big, fundamental changes to our life. The objects being passed among us – like university degrees – begin to feel redundant. A bee runs into my forehead, a small green spider tries to get into my bag before falling out. The whole question asked by Eucapocalypts Now seems to be: how do we stop dying and start living?”

Review of Eucapocalypts Now in BMA

Jess Oliver wrote a review of Eucapocalypts Now in BMA magazine. Big thanks to Jess, the intro to the review is super poetic itself:Eucapocalypts Now Eleanor Malbon

“When the apocalypse hits there will be no tidal waves in Canberra, no cyclones, probably not even any flooding. Instead, there will be raging fire fronts, brown sludge in water pipes and the gradual, slow decline of the world as we know it. When the apocalypse happens and the ground is baked hard from sun and sap, the countryside will be filled with refugees from the cities and the limits of humanity will become strained and frayed. Only one question remains: can you face it?”

“A series of poems – beautifully delivered by both artists – which imagined a localized apocalypse narrative. The stories intertwined and bounced off one another, running the gamut of human experience with tales of hardship and horror, beauty and love, hope and despair. I particularly liked the inclusion of small victories and the more mundane aspects of living in a changing environment: tap water running brown and the eager anticipation of germinating seeds. The inclusion of “place” was also well done and the mention of the shipping containers just near the “old Floriade” really brought the tales close to home.”

Interview by Lee Constable: Eucapocalypts Now

Lee Constable interviewed Aaron and I about Eucapocalypts Now for the ever present and in touch Canberra local radio 2xx.

My favourite part of the interview is when we talk about our process of collaboration, which has been incredibly fulfilling. Reflecting back on the performance I have to say that writing alongside Aaron is my most treasured part of the experience.

Aaron said: “It’s really difficult to point to individual lines and say ‘that’s mine, I wrote that one, and Ellie wrote that one'”.